One of the perks of writing for this web site is that it allows me to get out and explore as much of The Commonwealth and their amazing breweries as possible. While the consensus is that the overall number of breweries is starting to flatten out after many years of exponential growth, the quality and different style of beer are still on the rise. This can be seen through the beer lists and awards in various style categories in the last 3 years. And while Virginia is one of 2 or 3 states on the East Coast making a name for themselves, it is hard to ignore the mainstays in the market.
I had the opportunity to visit friends who live in Sacramento, California last week, who just happen to be as big of craft beer geeks as I am. We threw in a few basketball games and national parks into the mix, but a good amount of time was spent checking out the California beer scene. And while I will always love my home Commonwealth, California has a style and swagger of its own. Here are some great points I took away from the experience.
1. Everything is Awesome. There is reason California is on top of the craft beer scene: they put out amazing beer. I rarely found myself drinking a bad beverage. Even the ‘new startups’ or ‘super micro beer pubs’ put out quality. Saturation is not a bad thing, but I’m sure you have been to a brewery before and not liked half of their lineup. We give the benefit of the doubt to a lot of places, but in California, you have to be good or no one goes there. That cut throat nature keeps the beers fresh and inventive.
2. Stick To What Works. One thing that you will find in California is that 80% of their lineup is either an IPA, a sour, or a hoppy sour. The West Coast kings of the India Pale Ale put a ton of it out there in all varieties (more on that in a second). But it is the sour/wild scene that is a lot bigger than the last time I was out there. Most places complimented their massive IPA lineup with some sort of sour beer, which as you know, is very hard to produce correctly. The rest of most lineups were hoppy or sour versions of standards. I had an excellent hoppy pilsner as well as an outstanding wild marzen. Stouts are few and far between, and while there was a fair amount of barrel aged beers, it wasn’t rampant.
3. To Haze or Not To Haze. It is one of the biggest discussions we had on our trip. We visited 2 breweries on our way to and from Lake Tahoe: Moonraker and Knee Deep. Moonraker had a large selection of unfiltered IPAs while Knee Deep’s upper end were all filtered. Both were outstanding in their own way, which gives way to the point that you do not have to make your IPA the appearance of pulped orange juice to make it a quality hoppy beer.
4. It’s Not A Slight, It’s a Description. One of the things we routinely are corrected by the uber beer snobs is there is no such thing as an East Coast or West Coast IPA. Well that’s not how they see it out there. In fact, in talking with a few other patrons, the new hotness is New England IPAs, which have a great green/citrus aroma and taste, but a noticeable malt backbone and are often unfiltered (Moonraker and Track 7 offered a few varieties of each). Listen I’m all about harmony, peace, and Kumbaya, but I don’t see a problem with using it as a description when you are dealing with which 4 of the 12 IPAs you want to sample.
5. On Site is Alright. Every place we went had your typical onsite growler and crowler fills, as well as bottle and 4/6 packs. But with the volume in and out on a weekend, even for new releases, they had plenty in stock. That was very refreshing not to have to worry about getting your hands on great fresh beer. Now facilities were a little larger than what you typically see in Virginia, but they had planned to make sure that everyone who wants to get some to take home could, or at least has a fair shot at it.
6. Craft Beer Is For Closers. I was worried about finding a place open at 9:45am to watch the First Round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday. But, as it turns out, they love craft beer as much as coffee. Our California friends are the same way and we visited several coffee shops and ‘brunch’ restaurants around the area. All of them had an solid selection of craft beer on tap and it was not uncommon for someone to ask for a beer in the morning.
7. Is Pliny the New Jai Alai? It is on everyone’s bucket list, or at least was. While no one is disputing that Pliny the Elder is on the Mt. Rushmore of best IPAs ever, Russian River now has a few more production facilities and it is not the hard sought after beer in California. While we could not find it the first day we were there, the very next day we were the first to get a pull of a local tap right around the corner from where we were staying. Even our wives brought back several bottles from their day trip to San Francisco. Several years ago, when the Florida embargo was still on, Cigar Cities Jai Alai IPA super saturated the market in the Sunshine State that you couldn’t even find it in a Publix. You still can’t find Pliny on regular shelves past Denver, but it is not the golden goose like it’s cousin Pliny the Younger is now.
The gap between the West and East coast is noticeably closing, but there is just a different aura around the California craft beer scene. It is one full of people who know what they like and are willing to travel to try it and to pick it up. I look forward to going back in a few years to see how craft beer has evolved. Until then, I’ll stick with our brand of hoppy goodness.